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  • Writer's pictureNathan Savant

Story Beats - Mario VS The Simpsons

Frequent readers of this blog will no doubt know me for my deranged compare and contrast analyses and OH BOY AM I EVER ON ONE TODAY!! Hi folks, and welcome to the corner of the internet where we compare Mario Wonder with the episode of the Simpsons where they find a radioactive three-eyed fish in a lake! Why? Because I have issues, and I’m going to inflict them on you.

More specifically, what is the goal of a narrative beat? Everyone agrees that Mario isn’t a narrative game, and yet every time Nintendo releases a new Mario game there’s some conceit attached for why Bowser is attacking this time. It’s all nonsense anyway, right? Why are we even doing this?

Well I’m not going to defend the existence of video game narrative, I’m going to let Nintendo do that. Nintendo (the company that cares least about video game storytelling than any company on earth) continues to put cutscenes into all of its Mario games. That by itself should tell us all we need to build our defense for the importance of narrative. Instead of trying to defend the existence of narrative, what I’m asking is this: If we’re going to include a story anyway, why not make it good? Mario has cutscenes now, it’s had them since the intro to Mario 3, so if they’re going to exist, let’s do what we can to make them work.

First step: What matters for a Mario story? Well I sure as hell don’t need an overarching plot for the Mario cinematic universe. I don’t need Baby Bowser to show up as Teen Bowser in the next game, and then carrying Grandbaby Bowser in the one after that. That would be dumb. I also don’t need Mario to learn and grow over time, I don’t need to see Peach deal with her daddy issues, and I don’t need to EVER KNOW why Luigi is that way. No, what I need is just an exploration of a goofy idea through the lens of these ridiculous characters. Mario need not age, just as Bart Simpson need not age. His story is timeless, and so the character is timeless, and all I need is for each game to show me what’s happening today. In other words, Mario’s story is an episodic one. I don’t need to pick up Mario Sunshine to understand what’s happening in Mario Wonder, just as I don’t need to watch every episode of the Simpsons to understand what’s happening in the latest. Yes, I might catch more references if I watch everything, but that’s gravy. I can eat my meal without gravy. 

So with all of that thoroughly defended, let’s get into this: Mario vs Simpsons. Round One! FIGHT!!

The first thing I did for this analysis is I broke down a single episode of The Simpsons beat by beat to see what kinds of things constitute a Simpsons episode. What kind of plot points are present, what counts as a plot point, what moves the story along, etc. Then I took that information and I did the same thing with Mario Wonder. You can find that analysis here:

Mario Vs Simpsons Analysis PDF:

Simpsons v Mario Wonder - Beats
Download PDF • 68KB

My approach here was to simply break each story into beats. Once I arrived at those beats I started to compare information about them. For the most part I kept my musings factual, such as “Mario Wonder has more plot beats than this Simpsons episode” but one of the most important things I noticed was a little bit more subjective. That observation is: Simpsons plot points are always essential to moving the plot forward where Mario Wonder isn’t so strict. 

I brought in a friendly expert in the form of a story artist who works in animation, my friend Hae-Joon Lee, who reinforced my claim that the plot beats present in an animated TV series are scrutinized as part of the production process. Basically, when you write for a TV show, your writing is going to get revised and polished until the only things left are the things which are essential to the story you’re telling. This is standard practice, it’s something you do even with students in film school. 

Hae-Joon also suggested I take a look at media for younger children. The idea being that Simpsons is a show for adults and might take more of a liberty with repeated, unnecessary plot points. In other words, the emphasis on each plot beat moving the story forward could be an aggressive strategy of storytelling that is harder for younger kids to follow. This could be something Nintendo chose not to do because their target audience might be younger than the one intended for Simpsons. I decided to assume that to be the case and I took another trip through a different animated series: Bluey. 

Bluey is made for extremely young children, and teaches basic social skills. It’s not for the youngest possible demographic, but I figured anyone younger than about 5 would have a difficult time playing Mario as well, so I can’t imagine Nintendo having a 1-4 year old target audience in mind for their own stories. That said, even looking at a show made for the extremely young, Bluey proved to have the same level of sophistication as Simpsons. Each plot point introduced only important information for the story, everything excess was removed. Bluey episodes are extremely short, so this probably becomes essential at that timescale. This exploration proved two things to be true: It proved that we should only be providing essential information, no matter our intended audience. Even young children benefit from streamlining our story to include only the necessary beats. Second, this is true whether a show is 5 minutes long or 25 minutes long. The duration of a story doesn’t change the focus on the information present. Altogether this tells me that Mario Wonder being for a younger audience wouldn’t excuse its unnecessary repetition, and neither would the fact that it takes longer to see the whole story.

With that established, let’s look at the specific plot points that Wonder repeats. Maybe there’s a clue as to Nintendo’s intentions if we analyze them under a microscope. 

The first repeated plot point in Mario Wonder is about the houses the Poplins live inside. These houses are locked as part of Bowser’s use of the Wonder Flower to become a castle. As he flies over we see these houses being locked. Then the game repeats the fact that these houses are locked in a second scene. The purpose of this seems pretty clear: They want to be sure the audience understands what’s happening. However, that’s not something Bluey finds as concerning, and Bluey is made for children under the age of 5. If such extremely young children can be trusted to understand the plot, why would Nintendo need to repeat this beat?

Let’s take a look at a more egregious example of unnecessary information, though. For this example I’m going to go into World 3, Shining Falls. The story happening in Shining Falls is that Master Poplin is training under the waterfall and many Poplins arrive to test themselves by climbing to the top. Those who reach the top are said to be the toughest warriors. Prince Florian, however, doesn’t want to do this. Prince Florian asks if an exception can be made, and is told that even princes must follow the rules. Nothing I’ve just described may immediately seem like a repeat of information, except in that the game itself is a series of trials that must be overcome. Making the plot of World 3 about overcoming trials is inherently a repeat of information because ALL worlds in this game are about overcoming trials. There’s no new information here. You know it’s all about overcoming trials, that’s the point of the game. 

At the end of the day, this is fairly excusable as just a cheap gag, we see this kind of meta-humor in TV all the time. Issues of taste aside, however, this becomes an issue because the entire plot of World 3 is JUST that repeat of information. Of course World 3 is about overcoming trials. All worlds are about overcoming trials. This being stated is fine, but you don’t learn anything else here. There's no new information about any character here, aside from arguably that you learn Florian would rather not participate. That could be a perfectly fine plot point, except that Florian’s lack of desire to be tested is never expanded upon. This beat never impacts the plot outside of World 3. It doesn’t move the plot forward, so why did we spend so many lines of dialogue to convey that personality trait? And if that’s the only thing we learn from this World being about overcoming trials, then this World's worth of plot simply does not work and should be revisited. It’s not achieving the goals of the game.

The same can be said of nearly all the other worlds as well. Bowser Jr steals water from the desert for seemingly no reason, the miners get lost and that doesn’t matter except in that they have the seed you need. The volcano world almost matters, Bowser Jr here is at least trying to cheer his dad up, which is tangentially relevant to the main story, but nothing that happens in the volcano makes any impact outside of it. Nothing moves the plot forward. In fact, NONE of the worlds introduce anything that moves the plot forward. The plot moves forward up to the end of World 1 and doesn’t resume until you reach Bowser’s Castle for the final showdown. None of these world stories are achieving the goals of the game.

So let’s address the question I’ve now side-stepped twice: What ARE the goals of this game? How can I say these worlds aren’t achieving those goals when I wasn’t on the production team and didn’t write this story? Who the hell do I think I am?!

Let’s look at the story of this game and break it down. Mario Wonder is about Mario and friends visiting a nearby kingdom when Bowser arrives and steals a powerful magical object which transforms him into a castle. Bowser flies off to begin gathering his new magical power and Mario needs to reach him before he succeeds. This is our most essential plot. We don’t need any further details to be written before we have to ask ourselves a question: Why? Why is Bowser doing this, and why does Bowser need time to gather more power? 

The answer to these questions is partially given by the game itself. The final battle tells us Bowser is trying to take over the world by making everyone dance to his sick beat for all eternity. You can argue about whether this is a good plot point, but it’s funny and fits in the tone of the game very well. Bowser’s motivation is greed, nice and simple, and he’s going to exert that greed by making everyone dance forever. Done. This works great, it absolutely sounds like something a Simpsons episode would do, it’s just that perfect kind of absurd and threatening. I love it.

If I love the overall plot, then I’m happy to move forward. Maybe you want to revisit this concept from scratch, but this is my blog so I do what I want here. Go write your own blog post.

If the main plot is about Bowser making the whole world dance, what do we do in the in-between? We have a setup where Bowser is building up power trying to achieve his ultimate goal of forced dancing. It stands to reason that until that happens, no one would be dancing, right? So then Nintendo has done what they can with this plot, the Worlds just need to have arbitrary plots to fill time until you reach Bowser. This is all reasonable. Except we’re trying to move the plot forward. If we can’t move the plot forward with Bowser, because he’s busy building up power, we need to explore that plot through other characters instead. Enter Bowser Jr. 

I will argue that Bowser Jr’s role is the most essential character role in this game, which is a shame because he gets nothing from the writers. With Bowser himself locked away, we need Jr to give us an antagonist to carry things forward, but what we get is a thoughtless villain doing nothing other than being a pest. Don’t get me wrong, Bowser Jr’s entire character is being a pest, so this is good! But being a pest should serve a purpose. WHY is Bowser Jr doing what he’s doing? In the current iteration, this question is never answered. Maybe he wants to be closer to his dad, but that’s not really discussed at all. Nothing Bowser Jr does, with the exception of the Volcano World, appears to be about Bowser’s plans. There doesn’t even seem to be any intention for that to be the case either, Jr’s not even trying to help his dad, really. For example: Why steal the desert’s water? Bowser doesn’t need water, he needs power, he needs the world to dance. What does water matter here? It could be rewritten such that Jr is stealing water to keep the Poplin citizens distracted, but that’s not what’s present in the game now.

This is the foundation upon which I build my claim that the game is not achieving its goals. We see an overall plot coherently written, and a lot of other writing that has nothing to do with that. Bowser wants to make the world dance. Everything else should be written in support of that. Since it isn’t, the writing is clearly not achieving the goal established by the main plot.

Let’s try to fix this, and find these characters some motivation. Let’s try to build a story from what few pieces we do have. Mario is visiting the Flower Kingdom and Bowser is trying to make everyone dance. That’s all fine, so let’s go with it. Bowser Jr wants to help his dad, but that’s a fairly flimsy drive. WHY does he want to help his dad? In general, Bowser Jr is depicted as the younger, more incompetent version of Bowser just trying to live up to his dad. We can lean into that with Bowser Jr just trying to make his dad proud and earn his father’s love. That’s a pretty standard, easy-to-understand character motivation, so let’s just roll with it. No need to over-complicate anything. If Bowser Jr wants to prove himself, he’ll do what every kid tries to do; He’ll try to be useful. Not only that, but he’ll try to be useful in a way that catches his dad’s eye. He’ll try to be useful in as loud a way as he can, demonstrating how good he is at various things.

If Bowser Jr is trying to prove how strong he is, suddenly World 3 makes a lot of sense. The Poplins climb this waterfall to prove themselves, of course Bowser Jr will do the same! Why does Jr steal the water in the desert? Because he wants to prove that he can keep these Poplins busy and away from Castle Bowser while the power builds up. Bowser Jr can be the reason the miners get lost, can be the reason the volcano is going to erupt. Bowser Jr becomes the agent of chaos keeping the Poplins from delivering the Wonder Seeds to Mario. Bowser is building up power, Bowser Jr is leading the army to ensure Bowser gets the time he needs.

As a way of creatively building on this plot point, Mario’s desire to beat all of these levels can become a sort of mirror to Bowser Jr’s desire to prove himself. Bowser Jr is trying to do all this to prove himself to his father, and Mario is going to be the most capable person in the world as a sort of foil for that drive. Bowser, then, becomes an echo of Bowser Jr. Bowser Jr is trying to prove himself competent to his father, but we can also have Bowser trying to prove himself competent to his rival, Mario. Bowser is shown as playing tennis and racing go-karts and such with Mario in other games, it wouldn’t even be a stretch to say that Bowser just wants acknowledgement that Mario isn’t giving. We never need to dive into this very deeply, but it does make the whole game rhyme with itself, and can be a bit of a funny gag to play up as we go.

Mario, in this context, becomes the golden god everyone looks up to. He becomes a sort of ideal that no one can quite reach. It could also be fun to play this up with the Poplins as well. Maybe the Poplins are letting Mario run rampant through the kingdom while using all of their seeds, but we get a few little side gags about how he’s actually using up all their resources. Maybe that’s impacting them and their society in some way and they have to grapple with Mario’s impact in addition to Bowser’s. I can imagine a version of that going super dark, which could be funny, but there’s no reason to go so far as to break the brand. This is Simpsons level of comedy, right? We don’t need to examine the three-eyed fish’s ecological impact any deeper than we do, we only need it to be a little bit funny. Same thing here with Mario and the Poplins. Just a tiny hint of existential dread creeping in from the edges as the Poplins realize that these two forces, Mario and Bowser, are each acting for their own needs at the expense of the Poplins’ resources. 

Let’s use the desert level as an example here. Bowser Jr steals all their water to sew chaos in the region, then Mario comes in and starts taking all their wonder seeds to reach Bowser Jr. We can see little moments of eager citizens handing over what little they have to help Mario, and then in the end they get their water back, but we see them celebrating in front of their ruined homes and fields. Just a little hint of bleak for those paying close attention, much the way Simpsons or Bluey may include these kinds of gags for the parents to enjoy.

Those, however, are surface details. We can quibble on that as long as we want, but the core of what I’m suggesting here still applies no matter which details we use. Bowser Jr’s motivation now becomes “Sewing Chaos to prove himself to dad”. Bowser’s motivation is “I want to prove myself to Mario and defeat him for once” and Mario is living only to return the world to normal, he wishes nothing to change. Now that we know Bowser Jr is a mirror to Bowser, we can use his story arc as a commentary on Bowser’s. We can use Jr to tell us about his dad by proxy, meaning that each world can inform the main story. 

World 1 stays the same as it was, we set up the impact of Castle Bowser and make Mario work towards freeing Poplins along the way to reach where the castle has landed. Bowser Jr is here, but only as a flimsy bump along the road, we don’t need to know much about him yet.

World 2, the yodeling world, sets up the story as a whole. Since this world is about music already, we can use this place to show what would happen if Bowser succeeds. Bowser Jr here can be yodeling from the mountaintop, forcing Poplins to dance, possibly through the use of the Royal Seed’s power as an allusion to Bowser.

World 3, the waterfall test, builds up Bowser Jr’s arc. He wants to be stronger. He’s failed twice now, so he wants to prove himself. He climbs the waterfall to steal the power there, or whatever. He can even reference the fact that his goal isn’t really to win, just to slow Mario’s advance while Bowser builds up his strength. 

World 4, the desert, is just Bowser Jr sewing chaos. Stealing the water as a way of depriving the citizens what they need and maintaining their distraction. Here we can introduce the idea of Mario using up the Wonder Seeds just like Bowser is, and draw a small parallel between the two.

World 5, the mine, is Bowser Jr sewing more chaos. He’s caused the miners to get lost in the deep parts of the mine, and his goal is just to keep them there, and keep Mario busy. We could introduce a small sub-plot of Bowser Jr pointing out how Mario’s not any better than he and his dad, just to emphasize the World 4 parallel, and how Bowser Jr justifies his own actions.

World 6, the volcano, is about bringing Bowser more into the story as a setup for the castle World. Here Bowser Jr is trying to get his dad’s attention and warn him of Mario’s approach. This would be a great place to finally see their dynamic, finally show Bowser Jr’s doing all this just to get his dad to pay attention to him. 

World 7 is the final level, Castle Bowser. This can largely stay the same. The only real difference is probably just that the couple of times Bowser Jr shows up, we can use the few lines of dialogue to continue our commentary about his lacking relationship with his dad. These can be pretty simple gags about how sad and pathetic Bowser Jr is, basically the same as what’s already in the game now.

The important part of all this, I think, is that at no point during this discussion am I advocating for any additional story. I don’t want to change the pacing, I don’t want to change the delivery mechanisms of this story. The brief cutscenes we get, these simple lines of dialogue already present are more than enough to convey everything I’m talking about. I don’t want any of this to be even a second longer than it is. I advocate for zero change to the overall feeling of the game. The only thing I want to see here is taking those lines which already exist and rewriting them. If anything, we might actually cut down a few cutscenes in the game, cause a few of them just aren’t necessary. We might actually improve the pacing in doing all this.

At the end of the day, story isn’t the point of a Mario game. We all know that. However, Nintendo’s including story here anyway, so we may as well make it good. That said, we have to be careful not to let story take the limelight. Gameplay is the star, and it always should be. My goal is only to point out what beats are already present, to take what Nintendo is already doing and say “Yes, but….” in hopes that maybe this exploration will help you with your own game.

We think of “story games” as being games where you let go of control half the time. Nintendo is showing us that may not be necessary. An episode of the Simpsons is a perfectly viable delivery method for story. It may not have a script as long as a feature length film, but I’m sure we’ve all seen an episode of a TV show that stuck with us and changed our perspective. Simpsons is a solid comparison to the tone of Mario, but hopefully you can imagine a similar comparison between other games like Metroid or Final Fantasy and whatever their TV equivalents might be.

What kind of story is YOUR game trying to tell? Especially if you’re not trying to make a story game, what can you do to ensure that the little bits you do include won’t derail the experience? If you are making a big AAA-style story game with lots of cutscenes and production costs, how can you borrow from Nintendo’s methods to make your game more about the gameplay? Gameplay, after all, is why people are playing in the first place.

That’s it for me today. Thanks for reading!

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